New US charges against Julian Assange could spell decades behind bars

Jon Swaine in New York


Julian Assange could face decades in a US prison after being charged with violating the Espionage Act by publishing classified information through WikiLeaks.

Prosecutors announced 17 additional charges against Assange for publishing hundreds of thousands of secret diplomatic cables and files on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Assange, 47, was previously charged with working to hack a Pentagon computer system, in a secret indictment that was unveiled soon after his arrest at Ecuador’s embassy in London last month.

Related: Indicting a journalist? What the new charges against Julian Assange mean for free speech

“Assange’s actions risked serious harm to United States national security to the benefit of our adversaries,” the justice department said in a statement. Officials said the publication of secret files by WikiLeaks was “one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States”.

The WikiLeaks founder faces a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison in the US if convicted of all the charges against him.

WikiLeaks editor-in-chief, Kristinn Hrafnsson, labelled the new charges facing Assange as “the evil of lawlessness in its purest form”.

He added: “With the indictment, the ‘leader of the free world’ dismisses the First Amendment - hailed as a model of press freedom around the world - and launches a blatant extraterritorial assault outside its border, attacking basic principles of democracy in Europe and the rest of the world.”

The new charges against Assange raise profound questions about the freedom of the press under the first amendment of the US constitution. They may also complicate Washington’s attempts to extradite him from London.

These unprecedented charges demonstrate the gravity of the threat this poses to all journalists

Barry Pollack

Barry Pollack, a lawyer for Assange in the US, said in a statement: “These unprecedented charges demonstrate the gravity of the threat the criminal prosecution of Julian Assange poses to all journalists in their endeavor to inform the public about actions taken by the US government.”

The charges were roundly condemned by press freedom advocates. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said the charges posed a “dire threat” to journalists publishing classified information in the public interest. The Freedom of the Press Foundation described the prosecution as “terrifying”.

The new indictment, approved on Thursday by a grand jury in Virginia, detailed how Assange and WikiLeaks published troves of documents that they received from Chelsea Manning, then a US army intelligence analyst.

Some of the files were published by WikiLeaks in partnership with international news organisations including the Guardian.

Manning was convicted in 2013 under the Espionage Act for stealing classified records. She was released from a military prison in Kansas in May 2017 after serving seven years of a 35-year sentence. Barack Obama granted Manning clemency during his final days in office.

The former army private is currently also behind bars after she was returned to jail last week for refusing to cooperate with a grand jury that is presumed to relate to the Assange proceedings. This is the second time Manning has been jailed for contempt of court for defying a grand jury; in addition, she is now being fined $500 for every day she declines to testify.

Manning and her lawyers argue that her captivity amounts to an unwarranted punishment. Grand juries are designed to assist prosecutors in deciding whether or not to bring an indictment, not in preparing for trial, and it is unclear why she is still being detained even though Assange has now been charged.

Manning released a statement from jail on Thursday night in which she said she accepted “full and sole responsibility” for the 2010 WikiLeaks disclosures.

“It’s telling that the government appears to have already obtained this indictment before my contempt hearing last week,” she said. “This administration describes the press as the opposition party and an enemy of the people. Today, they use the law as a sword, and have shown their willingness to bring the full power of the state against the very institution intended to shield us from such excesses.”

Thursday’s indictment said Manning had responded to public appeals from Assange in 2009 for people with access to classified information to leak it to WikiLeaks, violating their legal obligations to keep it secret.

The two shared the objective of furthering WikiLeaks’s mission as an “intelligence agency of the people” to “subvert” US laws by disclosing classified information to the public, according to the indictment.

As they discussed the leak over online chats, prosecutors said, Assange “knew, understood, and fully anticipated” that Manning was illegally providing him with classified records “containing national defense information of the United States.”

Prosecutors sharply criticised Assange on Thursday for releasing documents that contained the names of secret sources who provided intelligence to the US war efforts and to diplomats around the world.

His conduct “put the unredacted named human sources at a grave and imminent risk of serious physical harm and/or arbitrary detention,” the prosecutors said, citing nine specific documents published by WikiLeaks that allegedly outed secret sources.

Officials also noted that files seized during the US raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011 included letters between the al-Qaida chief and a subordinate discussing material on the Afghanistan war published by WikiLeaks.

Assange was charged on Thursday with conspiracy to receive national defense information, seven counts of obtaining national defense information and nine counts of disclosing national defense information. He was previously charged with conspiracy to commit computer intrusion.

He is currently imprisoned in the UK after being convicted of breaching the terms of his bail by fleeing in 2012 to Ecuador’s embassy in London, where he remained for more than six years.

Ed Pilkington contributed reporting